Whether you're filthy rich or dealing in filthy lucre, these phrases for dirty money have a long history.
A few days ago I used the phrase “filthy lucre,” and my husband looked at me like I was speaking a different language. It means something like “dirty money” or “an unclean gain.” I feel like I’ve used that phrase my whole life, but he’d never heard it before. That got me wondering about its origin.
The Origin of ‘Filthy Lucre’
Before we talk about the phrase, let’s look at the strange word my husband was unfamiliar with—“lucre.” It comes from the Latin word “lucrum,” which also gave us the word “lucrative.” According to Etymonline, “lucrum” meant "gain, advantage, profit; wealth, or riches."
“Lucre” has had a negative connotation since its earliest days in English. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the theologian John Wycliffe, who in his “Works” from 1380 refers disapprovingly to “worldly honour and lucre.”
Just a few years later in 1386, Chaucer used the term in the “Prioress’s Tale,” referring to the “lucre of villainy.”
The exact phrase I’m familiar with, “filthy lucre,” didn’t turn up until 1526 when William Tyndale used it as the translation of a line from the Greek version of the Bible’s Book of Titus. In the verse, Paul is warning against false teachers saying they are “teaching things which they ought not, because of filthy lucre.”
According to a site about the King James Bible called “The King’s English,” the phrase “filthy lucre” appears four times in that version of the Bible, each time being used to refer “to a grave temptation for gospel ministers.”
Given that the word “filthy” has been associated with unseemly money since the 1500s, it’s actually surprising that it took at least 300 more years for people to start describing the wealthy as being “filthy rich.”
‘Filthy Lucre’ in Modern Use
Also surprising to me is that in modern use, “lucre” appears outside the phrase “filthy lucre.” That’s the only way I’ve ever heard it used, but in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, only 19 out of 66 entries for “lucre” were for the phrase “filthy lucre.” The corpus also includes “newfound lucre,” “measly lucre,” and many instances of “lucre” just used alone as a substitute for “money” and usually, again, with a negative connotation.
People talk of filthy lucre, newfound lucre, measly lucre, and just plain lucre.
The phrase “filthy lucre” does seem to be falling out of favor a bit, at least in published books. Going by a Google Ngram search, which shows how often words or phrases appear in books that Google has scanned, the phrase “filthy lucre” was much more common in the 1800s than it is today.
But in 1996, the band the Sex Pistols did go on a tour they called the Filthy Lucre Tour. They later released an album from that tour called Filthy Lucre Live.
The Bottom Line on ‘Filthy Lucre’
So there you have it. “Filthy lucre” first appeared as a translation from the Greek for something like “shameful or dishonest gain” in the Tyndale Bible, and has been used ever since to describe corrupting money or profit earned in a dishonorable way. And “lucre” as a stand-alone word for “money” also usually has a negative connotation.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."